(The original French stamps are on the left, the British counterparts are on the right)
Most philatelist know the part that stamps have played in making — and remaking — the history of the world. They have started wars and celebrated peace; they have inflamed slumbering animosities into bloody outbreaks, ridiculed political leaders, and they have played a most important part in the waging of war.
In recent times, stamps perhaps played no more important role than they did in helping the French underground, the famed Maquis, in their life and death struggle with the Nazis during World War II. Being a spy in war-time is a hazardous enough profession; being one against the Nazis was a particularly dangerous occupation, calling for much more than patriotism and bravery.
Communication between spies is of course necessary, this being the weakest link in espionage, since it is often difficult for a spy to know if his associate is friend or foe. The counter-espionage system of the Germans was excellent, and hundreds of underground patriots were murdered as they were discovered. Not only were these brave men and women of the French nationality, but many were British and Allied spies, dropped into France at night by parachute, with instructions to dynamite bridges, help Allied flyers to escape, and obtain important military information.
The Germans did not have great difficulty in trapping the enemy spies. If one were under suspicion, it was a simple task to send him a message, reading perhaps “Be under the Rhone Bridge Tuesday for dynamiting.” A Frenchman sympathetic to the Germans might ignore the message, or turn it over to the German authorities. An Allied partisan could easily walk into an ambush, and be caught.
After losses mounted to staggering proportions, the British Intelligence took up the matter, hoping to find a solution to the problem. Some operator thought of postage stamps, perhaps recalling that during World War I the British had skilfully reproduced the then current German postage stamps to mail anti-German propaganda within Germany. At that time, the counterfeited stamps were used since any large purchase of stamps from a German Post Office would have led to suspicion to point at the British operatives.
Why not counterfeit the then current French postage stamps? If it were kept a closely guarded secret, the French and British underground could correspond with each other and have the French Post Office even deliver the letters, right under the noses of the German. Each stamp would differ in some tiny detail from the original; otherwise, it was identical to the casual glance. A letter received by one of the Maquis franked by one of the British made stamps could be regarded as official instructions; with the regular French stamp on it, it would be apparent as a German trap.
Of the many secrets kept through the years of War, this story was one of the most jealously guarded. Few indeed in Britain knew that the stamps being dropped by parachute along with weapons, supplies and information were different from the regular French stamps. The recipients, in France, kept the secret well, knowing that to reveal it would be the equivalent of sacrificing their lives.
Methodical and thorough though the Germans were, they never penetrated the ingenious scheme. They must have wondered why suddenly their snares and traps did not produce any victims; they must have fretted and fumed, wondering how the Maquis were communicating with each other – not knowing that their own Post Office officials were carrying the messages, and that their own censors were opening the very letters themselves.
Examples of these in used condition, particularly on covers are extremely rare, as naturally each spy would destroy by burning any messages that he received with these stamps, since he would never know when the Germans might perhaps become aware of the scheme. That the Germans never suspected, inveterate stamps collectors that they were, is surprising; perhaps the answer is that the solution would have been too obvious for a mind as cunning as that of the Nazi.
The differences that the underground soldiers soon found to be the difference between life and death are apparent in the photographs shown. It would indeed be difficult for the uninformed to tell the genuine French-made stamps from the British counterparts. An explanation of the difference follow:
50 Centime Green: Marshal Petain’s right eye has an extra eyelid, showing as a tiny white dash. This is missing on the original.
1 Franc Rose Red: The artist’s name in the lower left corner has letters of equal size on the original. On the British reproductions, the “M” and “Y” of the name, “LeMagny” is slightly shorter.
1 France 50 Centimes Red Orange: The torch held by the Iris consists of three simple unencumbered white lines on the original French version; on the British, the bottom line has under it a series of tiny notches.
There were other values in the set that were similarly reproduced by the British Intelligence. The two franc is definitely known to have been so treated and perhaps more. French philatelic students have been studying these stamps seeking others.
It was mere chance that the stamps mounted on this page have been saved for philately. When the war ended, supplies of course remained; they should have been destroyed, but they weren’t, and they found their way into philatelic hands. They are an unusual chapter in stamp collecting’s checkered history, printings of another country’s stamps made not to defraud the Post Office, not to cheat stamp collectors, but to help fight the battle for freedom against Nazi-ism. That France survived may well be due to the very stamps that are presented herewith.
Stamps and article are courtesy of Herman Hearst Jr. who wrote the article in 1951.
For information on the 30 Centimes French Spy Stamp, please refer to the article in the Mystic Stamps Company’s website: